To The Victoria Falls
A Natural Wonder
The Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls is one of the most significant natural geographical features of the Zambezi River, and one of the world's most famous, and arguably most beautiful, waterfall formations.
From a small bubbling spring rising in north-western Zambia, the Zambezi River starts a 2,574 kilometre journey from the heart of southern Africa to the Indian Ocean. Travelling south through Zambia the river becomes wide and slow flowing, forming extensive marshes – the Barotse Floodplain - where the width of the river in flood can reach an astonishing 25 kilometres.
After flowing on through the Caprivi Swamps it is joined by one of its major tributaries, the Chobe River, before continuing its journey east. Forming the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Zambezi is already a substantial river, nearly two kilometres wide, and yet it is only about half way through its long journey to the sea. Flowing placidly through its broad, wide channel, it gives little indication of the dramatic change ahead.
As the river continues downstream, a distant roar grows louder, and a column of cloud can be seen escaping into the sky. The river becomes wider and shallower, flowing faster between islands, over rocks and through rapids.
Then suddenly and dramatically it crashes 100 metres into the chasm that dissects its path, seemingly swallowed into its own riverbed and forming one of the most spectacular and awe inspiring natural wonders of the world - the Victoria Falls.
The Rainbow Falls, photographic postcard by Percy Clark
When the river is in full flood it forms the world’s largest sheet of falling water, twice the height and one and a half times the width of Niagara Falls. The local name for the Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya – the smoke that thunders, is not without reason – within the shadow of the spray cloud formed by the Falls a constant rainstorm soaks the land, supporting the delicate flora of the 'Rain Forest'.
A unique feature of the Victoria Falls is that opposite the falls the level of the land continues, allowing the visitor to walk along its length, separated only by the narrow gorge, and close enough to feel the roar of the water as it drops into the chasm.
The Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls pulse with an annual flood cycle of high and low water. Summer rains in the upper reaches of its catchment area, in Angola and Zambia, flood the river causing significant rises in its levels. During these periods half-a-million cubic metres of water per minute pour over the edge of the Victoria Falls. At high water the spray plume can rise up to 500 metres high and be visible 20 kilometres away. Mohr, who visited in the Falls in 1870, wrote of his first far off sight of them:
On the evening on the 28th of June I noticed on the north-north-west, far above a vast green and apparently endless forest, some white cloud masses, which ascended continuously in the form of four or five columns from the same spot without any change in appearance, in spite of the dead calm which prevailed every now and then. This phenomenon was the more striking, as the vast blue firmament, like a huge glass cupola, was unbroken by even the tiniest cloud as far as the eye could reach. When I pointed this singular appearance out to Masupasila [his guide], he said it was the Sipôma (waterfall), and never as long as my pulses beat shall I forget that moment.
At close range the sheer volume of spray can all but obscure the Victoria Falls from immediate sight. It nurtures a localised 'rainforest' under its constant spray shadow, and the visitor should be prepared to be soaked to the skin (waterproofs advisable!).
The Victoria Falls
During the dry winter months, before the regional rains return in November, the river recedes to only a fraction of this volume, and the Victoria Falls become dry for much of their length. It is during the dry season that the power of Victoria Falls can be truly appreciated. Clear of the shroud of spray, one can marvel at the solid rock walls of the gorge, worn smooth by the abrasive power of the water, and watch the tumbling waters fall into its depths.
Near the eastern end of the Victoria Falls, about three quarters of the way along its length, the river escapes through a narrow opening, only 60 metres wide. It then flows into a deep pool called the Boiling Pot, about 150 metres across, before turning and racing on its 100 kilometre journey through the zigzagging Batoka Gorge. Compressed from such a wide open channel into the narrow twisting gorge, the river changes from placid and peaceful to tortuous and treacherous.
Above the Victoria Falls the river margins are a tropical paradise. Below, the landscape is dry and desolate, some of the wildest, most rugged and remote terrain in Zimbabwe. It is as if nature has released all of its powers in creating the spectacular waterfall, and now the river continues exhausted from its work. However, those who know the river here will know only too well that it is far from spent. The huge volume of water bubbles and boils with constrained energy, rushing through a series of over 60 gigantic rapids.
The Main Falls, photographic postcard by Percy Clark
The Victoria Falls Bridge
It was Cecil Rhodes whose ambition drove construction of the railway from Cape Town to the banks of the Zambezi at the Victoria Falls. The discovery of coal at Hwange brought the line from Bulawayo north, and it was Rhodes’s dream to build a “bridge across the Zambesi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls”, even though he had never visited them.
However the construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge was not without controversy. Many claimed that the bridge would mar the natural beauty of the Victoria Falls and that is should not be built so close to their vicinity. Despite his death in 1902, the bridge went ahead as Rhodes envisaged it, just below the great Falls.
The crossing of the Zambezi, immediately downstream of the natural wonder of the Victoria Falls, where the river is trapped within the narrow gorge, required a bridge that pushed engineering and construction knowledge of the time to its limits. The result, opened in 1905, was hailed as a man-made engineering wonder to rival the Falls themselves.
The Victoria Falls Bridge soon became a popular tourist attraction in its own right offering pedestrians, as well as train passengers, a spectacular new view of the Falls and gorges below.
Development of Victoria Falls Town
The railway from Cape Town arrived at Victoria Falls in 1904 [see To The Victoria Falls] and sparked the growth of the small town, including the building of the Victoria Falls Hotel in the same year. The bridge was opened with great fanfare and celebration in 1905, soon becoming a landmark almost as famous as the Falls themselves.
Ever since these early beginnings, the Victoria Falls have been a magnet for visitors from all over the world. The arrival of the railway brought an end to the days when a trip to see the Falls required an expedition taking months.
Now the distance was measured in days, and tourists replaced explorers. The 2,640 kilometre rail journey from Cape Town, travelling in relative comfort and luxury, heralded the dawn of modern tourism; of sunset river cruises and safari sundowners.
In 1905 a South African information publication declared:
The average man in the street has hardly yet realised that the Victoria Falls are within reach of anybody having a couple of months to spare.
From England, all one had to do was catch the train to port of Southampton. From there, the Union Castle mail steamer sailed every Saturday to Cape Town, taking 16 days. From Cape Town it was a further 3 days to Bulawayo, and another day on to the Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls was proclaimed a National Monument in 1935 and in 1937 the Victoria Falls Reserve came under the control of the Historic Monument Commission. In 1952 this became the Victoria Falls National Park, under the management of the Zimbabwe National Parks Authority, now the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Service.
A visit to Victoria Falls themselves is a pilgrimage that almost every tourist visiting the region undertakes. The views obtainable from the Zimbabwean side are unrivalled, and the visitor can walk along paths and viewpoints opposite the Falls for over two-thirds of its length. In the afternoon a radiant double rainbow often rises from the depths of the gorge, with the spray and sun almost guaranteed. On the nights surrounding a full Moon, a lunar rainbow can be witnessed. The Victoria Falls are one of the few places where this natural phenomenon occurs regularly and can be witnessed with ease.
The Flight of Angels
During the peek period the waters become stained reddish-brown with the sediment washed from upstream. The spray caused by the huge volume of water can obscure the Falls in thunderous clouds of mist - and also make photography all but impossible. At this time the only the way to fully view the Falls is from the air - an experience never to be forgotten at any time of year - and for those lucky enough to experience this 'flight of angels' there is also the chance to witness the rare phenomenon of a complete circular rainbow - only seen in perfect conditions from the air, when the volume of spray and angle of the sun to the observer create the conditions necessary for this truly breath-taking sight.
Conservation of the Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls and the immediate surrounding areas have been declared National Parks, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe. Both are relatively small, covering 66km2 (6,880 hectares) and 23km2 (1,900 hectares) respectively. However, next to the latter on the southern bank is the Zambezi National Park (56,400 hectares), extending 40 kilometres west along the river, and in the wider region the Matetsi Safari Area, Kazuma Pan National Park and Hwange National Park to the south are all managed for wildlife conservation. The Matetsi Safari Area was expropriated by the Southern Rhodesia Government from private ownership in 1972, and the intention was to eventually create a national park extending from the northern borders of Hwange National Park to the Zambezi River, incorporating the Matetsi Safari Area and two forestry areas. However the plan was not, to this date, been implemented.
Victoria Falls Rain Forest was proclaimed a National Monument in 1935 and declared the Victoria Falls Reserve in 1937 (an area extending some five miles from the Falls) came under the control of the Historic Monument Commission. This protected area was amalgamated with the Zambezi National Park, linked by a narrow strip of land along the riverbank in 1951.
The area is also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, declared in 1989, and extending over Zambia and Zimbabwe. Both countries are signatories of the World Heritage Convention, and as such pledged to keep these designated areas 'intact for future generations'. The listing covers the geographical features of the Victoria Falls and downstream gorges, thus protecting them from excessive commercialisation and development, and preserving one of the world's most magnificent natural wonders and one of southern Africa's major tourist attractions.
A new conservation initiative spanning five countries in southern Africa, and which will become the world's largest transfrontier park if successful, is planned, with the Victoria Falls at its centre. Covering the Okavango and Zambezi River basins, where the borders of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge, the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) will cover an area of about 287 000 square kilometres.